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Desperate for Peace in Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka is in the grip of an epic, raging civil war that has now intensified to its most crucial point--but that's all in the northern part of the country. The undeterred travelers stay in the South where most of the sights are and the war is largely a case of out of sight, out of mind. Aside from the many checkpoints on the way to and from the airport, you'd never know there was a war. The newspapers don't give many hints. Two front-page, fiddle-while-Rome-is-burning headlines I saw were: "Maths in New School Curriculum" and "Unregistered Cosmetic Items Found in Supermarkets." Indeed, a Japanese girl on my flight said, "War now? In Sri Lanka? Really?" Yes, really! The government, ever so reliant on tourist dollars, wants such travelers to keep coming, so they keep the entry visas free and maintain a campaign to be a package tourist destination for Europeans. They're not living in denial, as a tourist traveling too close to a hotspot would likely be turned away if for nothing more than the negative publicity should anything happen. Decapitated tourists are widely considered to be bad for business.

Despite the general safety of traveling around, you still need to be in the Indian Subcontinent frame of mind, ready to tackle the elements. I wasn't sure when I'd reach that comfort level. Of those that had attained that exalted state I was most impressed by the independent female travelers. These women are uniformly tough, strong-willed, and not taking any flak from anybody while simultaneously keeping their enthusiasm for the travel experience. It's a balancing act that must be hard to pull off.

One such hardcore girl I met soon after I arrived was a fellow Californian with a big, sunshiny smile named Maile. Americans are afraid to go anywhere, so I am always surprised to see my countrymen in third world countries. Maile was complaining to me that Sri Lankans don't get the concept of hitchhiking. She was indignant. "I waited on the side of the road for an hour!" I don't remember if I said anything as I conjured up the image of a blonde girl hitching solo in Sri Lanka. I can imagine the reaction when she left home. "Hey Mom, Dad, I'm going to Sri Lanka to hitchhike around. See you later." Think Mom said, "Don't forget a marker pen; you'll need to make signs"? She had given up hitching and was going back to the cramped, dangerous buses.

It wasn't her only foray into areas I feared to tread. We became hungry and she had an inspiration. "I know a good place!" Against my better judgment I was led me into a dark, crowded, cacophonous local eatery that became quiet as we entered. Papers, food scraps and used banana leaves were piled ankle-high on the floor. We ate banana leaf (a rice and curry meal) with our hands under many watchful eyes, during which I wondered if it was premature to buy a train ticket for tomorrow or whether I'd be tethered to the toilet all day.

Stainless steel cups of tap water were poured for us, and without hesitation she drank. I was stunned. "You drink the water?!" She thought it was a question of taste. "Do you think it's bad? I've had it before. It's OK." Sri Lankan tap water? I take showers with a hard candy to keep my mouth closed just to minimize the small amount of water I do ingest. What kind of wimp am I? Our eating performance went over well with the locals and I took photos with the staff. I met other solo female travelers like Maile that I admired greatly, and was able to enjoy their company without risking amoebic dysentery. Eventually I became more at ease food-wise, and I felt it was my duty to introduce other newly-arrived travelers to such authentic local places, with mixed success.

Concerning other aspects of Sri Lanka, I was slower to find my way. Transport was an issue. Buses and most trains were very crowded, and even if there was a seat on a bus I was too big for it. Plus, I had a backpack, which left me with little room to maneuver and made me feel like a bull in a china shop. [I must parenthetically share with you the most amazing thing I have seen in Asia: a guy selling pineapple on the train. (Trust me on this.) A Sri Lankan train is a roller coaster ride. One traveler told me that they average one derailment per day. I don't know if it's true, but on a straight stretch of track you are tossed, bounced and thrown with much gusto. Once I wasn't able to get a seat on a full train, and I could not stand without holding on for any length of time. Enter Pineapple Man. He announced his arrival, I turned and there he was: a wiry, unprepossessing man with a big, wide metal bowl on his head piled high with cut pineapple. Simply arranging the pineapple to stack so high was a feat. Not only could he balance the bowl on his head without touching it on the moving train, he could walk down the aisle, through all the people standing in his way, while not missing a beat on his salesman's spiel. It's hardly a game. If that bowl drops, his livelihood for the day is gone. But then--THEN--for the coup de grace he did a deep knee bend to clear the doorway and quickly crossed between the two train carriages, never touching the bowl. THAT is the most amazing thing I have seen in Asia. I dare say that Pineapple Man will be remembered long after I've forgotten the Taj Mahal.]

The closest I felt to the war up north was receiving the daily barrage of hellos, where-are-you-froms, and excuse-mes from locals down south. Coming from Malaysia and Singapore where my presence is routinely ignored, Sri Lanka is the opposite. All day long as a foreigner I am obliged to be predisposed and answer the endless questions and greetings from each and every person that calls out to me. The problem is that it's nearly impossible to separate the few who want to have a genuine conversation--something I'm quite open to--with those who view me as a source of income. So often the hellos and where-are-you-froms are followed by "Want taxi?" or "Need cheap hotel?" or more intrusive, personal questions. One guy with whom I stopped to make small talk was cordial just long enough to get to the point. "You smoke? Want marijuana?" Ugh! I wasted my time for this? At moments like these I feel like a caged zoo animal being poked and prodded. I wave the white flag of surrender and quietly retreat into my shell.

"Where from you"?

I was tested one bright morning when I set off for town from my almost-beachside hotel. Soon a guy on a bicycle pulled up along side a little too close and said, "Where from you?" I sighed to myself and closed my eyes. I didn't answer right away. I wanted to show him the sign I saw recently: "Loitering and bad behavior prohibited in this area." I arrived just the day before, a grueling, frustrating journey of packed buses, getting lost, plus for good measure a kid who spit up on my leg. Today all I wanted was some peace.

Unperturbed by my silence he said I should go with him towards the sound of the nearby loudspeaker. I opened my eyes. The loudspeaker! I was wondering what that was all about. A woman's raspy voice woke me early this morning. I thought it was a political rally judging by the nonstop fervent oratory. I relaxed my defenses and asked what the event was.
"Cricket!" he happily announced. Again he wanted to know my country and I said America. At this his mood instantly changed. He became dismayed and disinterested in me, saying, "Then you don't know (about cricket)."

He was about to pedal away, but we had come full circle and now I was suddenly interested in him. He was an obvious fan and he sincerely wanted me to enjoy his sport. I grabbed hold of his bike rack, catching him by surprise. "Who's playing?" He turned around and perked up. "Married and Unmarried!"

Well, this I had to see, and I peppered him with more questions to prove that I knew a thing or two about cricket. He was duly impressed, asking if Americans really do play cricket. Alas, no, I said, not wanting to go into the fact that Americans will never go for a sport that takes five days to finish and where they take breaks for tea. Nevertheless, I like cricket, and I hear similar criticism all the time for America's slow sport, baseball.
Cricket seems to be the only thing played in the country. Creativity and ingenuity are required to invent equipment and boundaries where it rarely exists. In two weeks of traveling around Sri Lanka I have yet to see kids kick around a soccer ball or shoot hoops, but countless times I've seen impromptu cricket matches in yards, alleys, and any open space.

He led me down a street and around to the back of my hotel. The cricket field was a rough, half-grassy patch of land rimmed with coconut palm trees. A small gathering of people were watching, lazing about and chatting amongst themselves. I was going to ask the guy more about the match, but he had vanished as quickly as he had first appeared, probably on the prowl for more tourists. I tried to tell the difference between the married and unmarried teams. I figured the unmarried would be younger, happier, spryer, less forlorn and not have to quit if the game went late. They looked the same, which I took as testament to the quality of married life in Sri Lanka.

The match was a predictably slow affair, though the loudspeaker lady was on fire, yelling commentary and announcements as if these were the last moments of the national team playing arch rival India. She never let up, but the squawk of her voice was funny and it inexplicably calmed me.
I bought a king coconut to sip and found a shady place in a corner under a huge mango tree from where I lingered. A gentle sea breeze blew. This bucolic, tropical scene was making me drowsy. The cricket match faded away and I drifted off into a half-sleep, slowing soaking in the peace of Sri Lanka.

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